The Perils of Utopian Overreach

With his usual erudition, C.S. Lewis sums up an important aspect of the human condition:

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We cannot adequately understand the world within us and without us without consulting a biblical anthropology. We were created in Eden; we were created for heaven (Phil. 3:20); the Preacher (Qoheleth) in Ecclesiastes says that God has “set eternity in their hearts” (emphasis mine; Eccles. 3:11b). Our deepest yearnings draw us heavenward.

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But now we live east of Eden in a fallen world, and, in our quiet, honest moments, we have a “something’s missing” feeling and a longing for heaven or something like the perfection of Eden. Life can feel like living in a motel room, and, despite the cable TV, free Continental breakfast, and comfortable queen-sized bed, it’s not home. How we respond to this yearning will greatly influence not only the health of our relationships but also the vitality of our society.

Interpersonal Overreach and Utopian Overreach
In a recent essay, I opined that we often try to arrange our lives in an effort to make the “something’s missing” feeling go away. We think that with the right career, marriage, sex life, kids, friends, local church, financial security, hobbies, etc., we can circumvent the cherubim and the sword of justice and re-enter Eden.

The pursuit of these things can result in a demanding spirit and interpersonal overreach. This manifests itself in different ways. It may be a wife who demands that her husband be able to read her mind in buying her the perfect gift for her birthday. She won’t even drop subtle hints for him, because, if he really loved her and was sensitive to her needs, he wouldn’t need them.

It could be a husband who demands that his wife have a similar sexual nature to his own despite the fact that the area of the hypothalamus in the human brain related to sexual pursuit is 2.5 times bigger in men than women. Also, the fuel that runs sexual desire is testosterone and men, in general, have ten times more of this than women.

In both examples a demanding spirit devours the spirit of self-sacrifice. It tries to sneak by the cherubim and the sword of justice and re-enter the original Garden. Deleterious consequences ensue because there is an unbridgeable gulf between the two worlds. We turn people into gods and people make lousy gods.

Just as there is interpersonal overreach in the domain of human relationships (The Micro), there is also utopian overreach in the political, economic, and social spheres of life (The Macro). A misguided longing for heaven or Eden enters the public square with harmful outcomes: the unintended consequences that are often rooted in good intentions.

There is no more dramatic example than the legacy of atheistic Communism in the last century. In the vision of a worker’s paradise, the property of the bourgeoisie is collectivized and distributed equally for the benefit of everyone: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

However, the Dream became the Nightmare with 100 million people being killed through starvation and in the gulags and killing fields. North Korea and Cuba (see also China, Vietnam, and Laos) still foolishly dance around this Golden Calf. The former is one large concentration camp; the latter is an island prison just 90 miles from our shores where human rights go to die.

Whereas a demanding spirit must arise in interpersonal relationships to try to re-enter Eden in the Micro, a totalitarian spirit must prevail to usher it in in the Macro. The greater the utopian overreach, the more totalitarian the government and the bloodier the revolution required to accomplish its agenda.

Less egregious examples exist closer to home, but, like atheistic Communism, demonstrate unrealistic objectives in pursuing not only equal opportunity for American citizens but also equal outcomes. The practitioners of this overreach are usually well-meaning people on the political Left who often interpret different outcomes among groups as inequities (inequalities=inequities) and seek to use the power of government to usher in a social justice that has the fragrance of Eden.

Utopian Overreach in Policies for Black America and Beyond
Black Americans have often been the recipients of such “compassion” resulting in a myriad of negative unintended consequences. In his commencement address in 1965, Lyndon Johnson stated that the true measure of success on the civil rights revolution was not only establishing an equality of opportunity for all peoples but also an equality of result.

The War on Poverty was supposed to pursue this lofty goal between black and white but actually significantly slowed the process of a declining poverty rate in the black community. Jeffery Reynolds writes:

The poverty rate among black families fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, during an era of virtually no major civil rights legislation or anti-poverty programs. It dropped another 17 percentage points during the decade of the 1960s and one percentage point during the 1970s, but this continuation of the previous trend was neither unprecedented nor something to be arbitrarily attributed to the programs like the War on Poverty.

Every major political leader on the Right in America, no matter how rock-ribbed, believes in a safety net—a safety net, not a hammock—but the American taxpayer hasn’t really gotten the bang for their buck in seeing their money diminish poverty. In 1967, shortly after the programs took effect, the poverty rate was around 27 percent. In 2012 it was approximately 29 percent after an expenditure of 21.5 trillion dollars.

The futility of this transfer of wealth is highlighted when we consider that, according to William Galston, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, only 8 percent of the people who (1) earn a high school diploma, (2) wait until age 20 to get married, and, (3) wait until they are married to have children, live in poverty. Taking money from Taxpayer A and giving it to Citizen B through the agency of government was conspicuously missing from this list of poverty deterrents.

The social pathologies that emerged in the black community as a result of all this liberal compassion led journalist Jason Riley, who grew up in inner city Buffalo, New York, to write a book titled Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed.

Exhibit A: In the War on Poverty, as single women received more government largesse as a result of illegitimate children, the government became these women’s “husband,” resulting in more catastrophic outcomes for children growing up in fatherless homes: higher rates of poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, lower educational achievement, poorer physical and emotional health, earlier pre-marital sexual activity and alarming rates of illegitimacy.

Utopian overreach and the legacy of negative, unintended consequences continues among American blacks through the policy of Affirmative Action. Riley believes that, because of racial preferences, many blacks were accepted into elite institutions for which they were not academically prepared. He points out that, in the University of California system, when a ban was imposed on racial preferences in 1996, black graduation rates rose by more than 50 percent, illustrating how affirmative action policies were limiting black students’ success.

High tax rates often exemplify utopian overreach and have results that are just the opposite of what proponents of “soak the rich” policies want. If a tax rate is too low (e.g., 3 percent) for people with higher incomes, there won’t be enough revenue to fund necessary government services. If it’s too high, the well-off will use smart accountants to hide their money just as the wealthy did with tax-exempt securities during the Woodrow Wilson administration.

Less taxable income is reported and revenues from taxes go down. The safety net that many people pursuing social justice want to fortify becomes less secure. It’s interesting to note that when high tax rates were lowered during the Wilson, Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush 43 administrations, revenue for Uncle Sam went up.

Such empirical verification should force the person on the Left, who feels compassion for the out-of-work machinist in Sandusky, Ohio, and doesn’t want to see his food stamps cut, to reconsider their tax policy. This seemed to be completely lost on Bernie Sanders and his followers and others (e.g., Pope Francis) who derisively trot out the straw man of “trickle-down” economics.

Utopian Overreach on the Right: Foreign Policy
As someone whose politics are right-of-center, I have to admit that sometimes people on my side of the aisle demonstrate naiveté and consequently get “worked over” by the cherubim and the sword of justice—i.e. real world consequences. Though utopian overreach seems to be more a part of the DNA of the Left than the Right—I have no doubt the etiology of the Left is in Genesis 3—sometimes the Right acts like the Left and internecine conflict is necessary to at least clarify issues.

Libertarians, who are conservative on economic issues, often have an isolationist foreign policy. They don’t seem to realize that when you do nothing abroad in the way of deterrence, a power vacuum is created that often gets filled by the bad guys. Isolationism may work well in Eden but not east of the Garden.

Look at Hitler in the 1930s; look at Aleppo today. As Charles Krauthammer avers, President Obama was wrong in saying we only had two choices in Aleppo: doing nothing or boots on the ground. Deterrence was an option:

Five years ago, the popular uprising was ascendant. What kept a rough equilibrium was regime control of the skies. At that point, the U.S., at little risk and cost, could have declared Syria a no-fly zone, much as it did Iraqi Kurdistan for a dozen years after the Gulf War of 1991.

The U.S. could easily have destroyed the regime’s planes and helicopters on the ground and so cratered its airfields as to make them unusable. That would have altered the strategic equation for the rest of the war.

And would have deterred the Russians from injecting their own air force…

Utopian overreach in the opposite extreme happened with the policy of “nation-building” in Afghanistan under presidents Bush 43 and Obama. The former wrote:

“Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society,” because “a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.”

A democratic Afghanistan? Really? After centuries of decidedly undemocratic regimes?

A former Navy SEAL, Leif Babin, sums up what actually happened after a decade of fighting:

What do we have to show for our efforts? A government, under President Hamid Karzai, that is corrupt, largely incompetent, and of questionable loyalty; inept Afghan security forces that regularly turn their weapons on their American and NATO advisers; and a resurgent Taliban poised to regain control of the country after U.S. forces withdraw.

Jack Kelly complements Babin’s assessment: “Nation building in Afghanistan hasn’t worked. And with trillion-dollar budget deficits, we can afford it no longer. Ronald Reagan had the right idea. He provided aid and moral support to people fighting for freedom in their homelands, but left the building of their nations to them.”

As long as we live this side of eternity, utopian overreach, like the poor, will be with us always. It is part of the human condition east of Eden to erroneously inject a misguided longing for heaven into the prominent political, economic, and social issues of the day. A forthcoming essay will explore how practicing Catholics and other orthodox Christians can inoculate themselves from this disease and exercise prudence in the public square.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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